Music Review: Ted Hearne’s PLACE (Power to the People! Festival with the LA PHIL at Disney Hall)

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by Lyle Zimskind on June 13, 2022

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Reviewing the contemporary theatrical oratorio Place a few years ago, Opera News Magazine suggested that Ted Hearne’s manygenred musical rumination on urban gentrification and its baleful underpinnings “seemed to arrive both at the right cultural moment and entirely too late.” As if to affirm this impression, the LA Philharmonic’s west coast premiere performance of Place got underway last Tuesday just minutes after polls closed on an election primary establishing a billionaire commercial real estate developer as the front-runner to become L.A.’s next mayor. Even as we heard the message of the music, events of the world augmented its plangency in real time.

The 75-minute sequence of 20-plus songs in Place do not cohere into a unitary narrative, nor do the six costumed vocalists represent discretely developed characters even in their choreographed interactions. There is not much by way of humor or emotionally charged dramatic development that emerges through the proceedings. Even if nothing about the work’s staging particularly grabbed us, though, what kept our attention was Hearne’s musical score, with a libretto by the composer and Saul Williams, and the performers who delivered them.

Throughout the work we encounter individuals reacting to gentrification and the displacement that inexorably follows. We learn of uprooted families, businesses, communities, neighborhoods, cultural and racial identities and all their lost historical continuities. At no point do any of these affected constituencies win their battles against the impersonal forces who “will call it an improvement and price you out. All they retain is their dignity even as they’re forced to “squat a piece of land / on an abandoned street / where some abandoned dreams / live off abandoned meat.”

What keeps all this from becoming a relentless downer is the lively caliber of the musical score and the charisma of the cast’s six vocal soloists. Conducted by Hearne himself, the instrumental ensemble of about 18 (including a DJ) deftly and sensitively transitions between R&B, rock, pop, hip hop, electronica, and other styles. Hearne and Williams are especially effective in finding and wringing layered meanings and impacts out of simple phrases (“What about my son?” “white flight,” “Mind your business”) through varied repetition. Isaiah Robinson’s soulful contemporary tenor was the evening’s standout voice, but almost every singer has a shining standout moment.

A finalist for last year’s music Pulitzer, Place is a consistently intriguing and often moving listen, and the piece has already been released as an album on New Amsterdam Records (accessible on Spotify, of course), which last week’s performance has motivated us to explore further. We’re less convinced that its current theatrical manifestation particularly enhances the work, but it doesn’t throw it out of whack either. And we’d certainly expect that Hearne is going to be a mainstay of the Phil’s Green Umbrella contemporary music programming in seasons to come.

photos by Dustin Downing, courtesy of the LA Phil Association

LA Phil Green Umbrella series
Power to the People! Festival
Walt Disney Concert Hall
June 7, 2022

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